For the last few years I’ve managed to find a Bangladeshi film in at least one festival each year. They have all been worth watching for different reasons. Rehana continues the run in this year of the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. It has also become the first Bangladeshi film in competition at Cannes this year. How can I categorise it? It feels a little like a hybrid, a social realist/art film. It has a sensibility that melds a Ken Loach/Dardennes Brothers melodrama with an independent Iranian film investigating the struggles of an intelligent woman trapped in an institutional framework which seeks to control her agency. But isn’t a film which sets out to present a clear political message. Indeed its narrative resolution is at the same time conclusive about its central character and open-ended about what will happen next. It’s a hard watch but rewarding and confirms its writer-director Abdullah Mohammad Saad as a talent to watch out for at international festivals, confirming the promise of his first film, Live From Dhaka (Bangladesh 2016).

Rehana in the exam room.

The film’s original title is ‘Rehana Maryam Noor’, the central character of the narrative. She is a young widow with a daughter in the first grade of school and with her parents and younger unemployed brother to support. She has worked hard to achieve the position of Assistant Professor at a private Medical Teaching College, but the complex plotting of the narrative suggests that she faces a network of institutional issues affecting each part of her life. We first meet her dealing with her daughter Emu who has joined her at work. Usually the child will be taken to school and collected by her grandmother or by her uncle Roni. With Emu sorted, Rehana has to invigilate an exam. She discovers what she believes is a student cheating and expels her from the exam. The young woman, Mimi, is supported by her friend Annie and Rehana’s decision will have consequences. At this point it isn’t obvious that two different narrative strands – Emu’s schooling and the fate of Mimi and Annie will be related, but both will become major issues for Rehana. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll focus on Rehana and the institutions.

Bangladesh is a country that has experienced female leaders (the current PM is Sheikh Hasina preceded by Khaleda Zia and both women have had long political careers) and women have been able to progress in the professions, yet the society is still patriarchal (like most societies). Rehana is determined to ‘do things properly’ both in terms of her family responsibilities and her work. Emu is an intelligent and lively child who should be the kind of student every teacher dreams of. But we never see her at school, we only know that the school thinks Rehana, the working mother, is neglecting her daughter. In her college, Rehana wants to support the female students but also to observe correct procedures. She will find herself embroiled in a case of alleged sexual harassment involving Annie and Mimi and her own line manager Dr. Arefin, who is also the student liaison officer. The principal of the college is also a woman whose support is important to Rehana but, as she points out, she has to answer to a board and the college’s reputation is perhaps the board’s primary concern.

Rehana challenges Dr. Arefin

Director Saad and his cinematographer Tuhin Tamijul present this drama using a hand-held camera for ‘Scope compositions with what appears to be a blue filter throughout the film. The whole narrative plays out in the college building, a location which to me sometimes seemed more like an airport building than a college, with large windows and corridors but no sense of what kind of world lies outside. I don’t remember any music score and though there is significant action/interaction between characters, there is also a very measured sense of pacing. Some characters, especially Rehana, sometimes pause, either thinking about what to say or do or simply stunned into silence by the difficulties of the situation. Overall, the tone of the film’s presentation is ‘austere’. Why then is it so engrossing (but also so uncomfortable)? Much depends on the terrific central performance by Azmeri Haque Badhon. She was present for the online Q&A hosted by Kalpana Nair. She is, I think, an actor in commercial Bangladeshi cinema and TV and she told us that she had never played this kind of role before. The shooting took place over 18 months and she prepared carefully, taking time to change her hair, make-up and nails to lose the glamour as Rehana wears a headscarf and demure dress throughout – in contrast to other staff and students. Annie’s yellow sweater is one of the only splashes of colour in the film. Often the camera presents an angled view of Rehana in profile or frames her in doorways, through gaps, almost as if she has difficulty controlling the space. Badhon’s remarks indicate that the idea of an independent cinema in Bangladesh is still to be established. She said she was keen to take the role because Bangladeshi films don’t place women at the centre of the narrative. I remembered a previous LFF film, Made in Bangladesh (2019), a rousing film about the struggles of female workers to unionise in sweatshops. But then I realised that was a film made by a woman trained in North America and with a history of challenging films back in Bangladesh.

Rehana with her brother Roni – a wannabe comedian

Rehana too has ‘outside support’. Abdullah Mohammad Saad found success with his first film at the Singapore International Film Festival and that perhaps explains why it has a Singapore producer in Jeremy Chua (who was also part of the Q&A). The other producing partner/funder is the Doha Film Institute. Doha funding has helped many Arab cinema projects and I’m guessing this has extended to Bangladesh. These kinds of funding and partnership arrangements are very useful in helping independent films to find outlets in international festivals. It looks like this film has a US release and I hope it becomes available in other territories. I hesitate to say that i ‘enjoyed’ the film – part of it I watched almost between my fingers as I was frightened about what would happen next. Poor Rehana is always up against it. Most of the time I applaud her stubbornness in the face of collusion and corruption, but I would have to admit that sometimes she could just cut people a little slack. She’s right about challenging possible sexual assault but not necessarily in the way  she does it and to a certain extent she should perhaps put her daughter’s future first (because nobody else will). This is an important film so please be prepared to grit your teeth and watch it.